Assistant trainer Heather Craig doesn’t care if anyone thinks Grade II winner State of Play looks fat. When she saddles the colt for his 3-year-old debut in Saturday’s Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, she knows she’ll be sending out a fit horse.
Owned by Barry Irwin’s Team Valor International and trained by H. Graham Motion, the connections of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner and Eclipse champion Animal Kingdom, State of Play heads an 11-horse field for the mile-and-a-sixteenth Davis, the showcase race of the track’s annual Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South.
Also featured are the Grade III, $150,000 Endeavour Stakes for older fillies and mares at about a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf and the $150,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at about a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf. First-race post time is 12:25 p.m.
Saturday’s festivities include an appearance by Steve Cauthen, the legendary Hall of Fame jockey who rode Affirmed to his 1978 Triple Crown triumph. Cauthen will sign autographs in front of the Tampa Bay Downs gift shop from 1-3 p.m.
Before both of State of Play’s victories at Saratoga – a 5 ½-furlong maiden event and the mile-and-a-sixteenth, Grade II With Anticipation Stakes, both on turf – Craig, Motion’s assistant, heard fans and commentators say the horse looked fat or out of shape. “It kind of got to be a running joke,” Craig said.
Both times, State of Play showed a sufficient level of fitness to win. Although he failed to perform his best in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs in November in his first start back after a slight illness, Craig says the Kentucky-bred son of War Front-Valeta has gotten even fitter since training over the deep, sandy Tampa Bay Downs surface the past month.
“He’s a pretty stocky, big-boned horse who might look to be on the heavy side, but he is all muscle,” Craig said Thursday morning. “I think he looks a lot fitter than he did as a 2-year. Tampa Bay Downs is not an easy track to handle, but he has been training great and has handled the dirt better than we could have imagined.”
Craig was aboard State of Play for his first three breezes at Tampa Bay Downs in January before turning the reins over to jockey Luis Garcia, who breezed him Saturday in 48.3 seconds for his final four-furlong workout. Alan Garcia (no relation) will be in to ride State of Play in the Davis.
Although it is his first start on a dirt surface, Craig believes State of Play can handle the switch based on his workouts. Of course, Motion-trained runners are no strangers to successful surface changes: Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby in his first start on dirt.
State of Play’s prime challengers in the Davis should include a trio of stakes winners: Prospective, Reveron and Burning Time. Prospective, owned by John C. Oxley and trained by Mark Casse, won the $100,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs three weeks ago. He will be ridden by Luis Contreras.
Reveron, who won the Gulfstream Park Derby on Jan. 1, is owned by Stipa Racing Stable and trained by Agustin Bezara. Fernando Jara has the return riding assignment. Burning Time, who won the Foolish Pleasure Stakes as a 2-year-old in September at Calder, is owned by Harold Queen and trained by David Fawkes and will be ridden by leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Leandro Goncalves.
It’s impossible to discount the lightly raced Ecabroni from the barn of trainer Todd Pletcher. Ecabroni, who will be ridden by Javier Castellano, seeks to become Pletcher’s third Davis winner in a row and his fifth in the past seven years.
Motion, who won two of three stakes on the 2011 Festival Preview Day card – with Silver Reunion in the Endeavour and Dynamic Holiday in the Florida Oaks – seeks to repeat the feat Saturday with State of Play and Endeavour entrant Master Shade, a Team Valor 4-year-old filly who won the Middle Stage Stakes at Aqueduct in November.
The 10-horse Endeavour field includes the French-bred 5-year-old star Zagora, who won the Grade I, $500,000 Diana Stakes last July at Saratoga and finished second in the Grade II New York Stakes at Belmont and the Grade III Hillsborough at Tampa Bay Downs. Owned by Martin Schwartz and trained by Chad Brown, Zagora will be ridden by Javier Castellano.
Other possible contenders include Grade III winner Jenny’s So Great, the winner of the Lightning City Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Dec. 3 under jockey Rosemary Homeister Jr., and Keertana, who won a trio of Grade III turf stakes in 2011 for trainer Thomas Proctor.
The Florida Oaks is being contested on turf for the second time. A pair of Grade III winners headline the eight-horse field. Kentucky-bred filly More Than Love, owned by Newtown Anner Stud and trained by John Terranova II, is 2-for-3 lifetime, including her Nov. 25 victory in the Grade III Miesque Stakes at Hollywood Park in November. Castellano has the riding assignment.
Ontario-bred filly Northern Passion, who is owned by Oxley and trained by Casse, captured the Grade III Natalma Stakes at Woodbine on Sept. 17. Regular rider Contreras will be in the irons. She will run as a coupled entry with Ontario Lassie winner Dixie Strike.
Saturday’s festivities also include an appearance by Steve Cauthen, the legendary Hall of Fame jockey who rode Affirmed to his 1978 Triple Crown triumph. Cauthen will sign autographs in front of the gift shop from 1-3 p.m. and fans will receive free Affirmed-Alydar postcards while supplies last.
Additionally, Tampa Bay Downs will host the Taste of Tampa Bay Food Truck Festival, with seven food trucks and six tents strategically located to satisfy every connoisseur. Live racing resumes Friday with a 12:25 p.m. first-race post time. Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker in the Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at the Downs Golf Practice Facility.